Mashing Your Way to Innovation

Imagine you’re the head of a Hollywood studio. You get pitched movie ideas every day. The pitches go something like this:

  • “It’s like ‘Rocky’ meets ‘Casablanca’ – the underdog fights his way to the top and sacrifices his true love for the greater good.”
  • “It’s like ‘Home Alone’ meets ‘Aliens’– a kid takes on invaders from outer space all by himself.”
  • “It’s like ‘When Harry Met Sally’ meets ‘Lincoln’ – a neurotic single woman from New York City unites a nation.”

Ok, these are a little far-fetched, but they illustrate the power of a mash-up: combining two or more disparate ideas into an entirely new concept.

Mash-ups are everywhere and have been for a while. They define some great products and are inspiring some promising new businesses. In the web development world, the term technically refers to a new generation of apps and web sites that combine functionality and/or data from two or more sources. When you combine Google Maps with data on local gasoline prices, for example, you could get a mash-up that helps you find the cheapest gas located near you and get directions to the station.

Mashed-up Ideas are Driving Digital Innovation

Everyone knows customer feedback is important in developing new products. But customers don’t always know what they want, or can’t express it. The magic happens when unarticulated needs can be met. And one way to get there is to creatively mash-up the things that create value: functionality, data and services.  The term “mash-up” might suggest an element of randomness.  On the contrary, a very thoughtful – and structured – approach to the process helps.  E.g. what I call the dimensions of value (but that’s a blog post for another day).  The bottom line is that we live in a world of APIs, big data and cloud computing, where easily accessible services and analytics can add value to our customers, when combined in the right way with the proprietary stuff we build ourselves.  What’s at stake?  Innovation, dramatically expanding the possibilities for new digital products and dominating the competition.

In addition to the “functional” kind of mash-up, in a broader sense the concept of a mash-up can drive strategy, when big themes or trends are combined together in the right ways.  Consider these:

  • Gamification + Localization + Mobile = Foursquare
  • Vertical communities + Social networks = Quora
  • Content aggregation + Social media = LinkedIn Today (LinkedIn’s personalized newsletter)
  • Online education + User Generated Content + Affiliate Marketing= Skillshare

Throughout history, the mash-up of ideas has driven innovation. Gutenberg invented the printing press by combining new twists on movable type printing with oil based ink, which resulted in the mass production of printed books. Henry Ford wasn’t the first to create the automobile engine; he mashed up the idea with a novel assembly line concept to achieve scale in the production of cars which made them more affordable for the masses.

Taking a step back, when big trends from a variety of disciplines are combined, you get some powerful mash-ups. Some might call it simply “connecting the dots.” But too often connecting the dots happens by serendipity or a fleeting moment of inspiration. In contrast, a proactive attempt – and structured process – to mash trends together into a new singular concept can yield big results.

Let’s go back in time, to the 1970s.  Let’s say you worked at a manufacturer of personal electronics back then. What was happening in the world and in your industry then?  What were the big trends?

  • Demographically…urbanization. There was a continued dramatic shift in the number of people living in cities, building on a trend that began two decades earlier. In 1975, the percentage of people worldwide who lived in cities was 40%– up from 30% just twenty earlier. More people living in cities means more people meandering about.
  • Economically…high unemployment levels and inflation meant less disposable income. This mean more potential for cheap forms of entertainment.
  • Culturally…the Me Generation. Individuality and personal expression reigned.
  • Portable entertainment. In the 1970s, early models of boom boxes exploded onto the streets of cities, popular with young people. They were heavy, large, clunky and played music oh so loudly.
  • The price of electronic components had dropped, which means the cost base for “inventing new stuff” was low.

Imagine yourself at the manufacturer of electronics. How can you mash-up what was happening around you? Imagine the boardroom discussion….

  • Higher urban population means more people living in cities. That’s millions of more people meandering about. How can they be better served?
  • The Me generation is all about individuality and personal expression. Music is the ultimate form of personal expression.
  • What if the boombox could be made smaller and cheaper?
  • What if music devices could be made even more personal?
  • What if they could be made more portable?

How can we combine all of these things?

Enter the Sony Walkman. Launched in 1980, the same year as MTV, the Walkman checked the boxes on all of these trends. It was the ultimate mash-up, not only in terms of what it did functionally but also in terms of how it addressed a range of emerging trends.  From the Walkman, the iPod can trace its ancestral roots.

Communicate Your Idea as a Mash-up and People will Get it

Even if your idea is completely original, chances are it can be expressed in terms of a mash-up. And doing so can help people understand and envision new concepts, because the components are already known commodities. Let’s take the founder of the Subway sandwich chain. Would he have been successful pitching investors with “I want to make a chain of sandwich shops.” Urrggh. How uninspired. In contrast, isn’t this a bit more compelling: “We’re starting a new quick service concept that does for sandwiches what McDonalds did for hamburgers. In fact, the idea is McDonalds meets the old fashioned sandwich shop, but healthy and fresh.” Immediately you get it.

On a closing note, I personally publish a newsletter on innovation called The Digital Fast Lane.  It’s a mash-up of RSS feeds, tweets and content aggregated from many sources across the web, made possible by a tool called which in itself is a mash-up.  Feel free to check it out.

Happy mashing,


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